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Breaking Barriers

For the August newsletter which focuses on the engineering field, I had the amazing opportunity to talk to Dr Michelle Dickinson (MNZM). For those (hopefully few) of you who don't know her already, Dr Michelle Dickinson is a senior lecturer of Engineering at the University of Auckland, the founder of the charity OMGtech! and of New Zealand's first nano mechanical testing laboratory- duly called The Dickinson nano mechanical research lab.

She is a member of New Zealand Order of Merit, and winner of both the Prime Ministers Science Media Communication Prize and the New Zealand Association of Scientists' Science Communicators Award in 2014, while also being awarded the Sir Peter Blake Leadership award in 2015.

However, despite all these accolades, what makes Michelle awesome is her constant pursuit to promote gender equality, especially in the science and engineering fields. She is a fighter for getting girls and women more aware of the opportunities in STEM fields for them. Her actions through founding the charity OMGTech! (where some classes will only take place if a certain percentage of girls attend) makes makes Michelle a real role model- someone who breaks barriers for the benefit of girls everywhere.

Hi, Michelle! Before we begin, tell us about yourself: I’ve always been fascinated by how things work, even as a kid I was always taking things apart to see the components inside.  This led me to learn to solder electronics and code computers as a teenager and I fell in love with being able to make and modify things so when I decided to go to university I tried to find a subject that allowed me to do that.  Engineering seemed to be a good fit for me as it was about making and breaking things which I loved and since then I’ve had jobs which have still revolved around those key passions.  Since then I’ve become a nanotechnologist, educator and co-founder of a children's charity.

Can you share an interesting story about your work?

Work is always interesting for me, being an engineer each day is different.  One project that I really loved was helping to design a new medical machine that could measure the hardness of bones without the need for X-rays for patients with osteoporosis.  What I saw was a totally new tool that opened up medical diagnostics for at risk patients including pregnant women and children.  It’s always amazing to see things that you work on that have the potential to make a big different to parts of society.

Highlight for us an experience which really changed your perspective on something?

Working overseas has had a big impact on the way I interact with people.  I have spent time in Iran, Japan, China and Korea where the culture, especially the culture as a female engineer is very different.  These experiences have totally changed the way I present myself in meetings when working with other engineers from other cultures to make it easier for us all.  It’s part of the unconscious bias model where different experiences allow you to acquire other perspectives from people who are different to you.

If you had to write a book about your life, what would  be your message at the end of it?

Never stop learning.

So why did you choose engineering, especially with all the challenges that came with it (for example the lack of female classmates)?

I chose engineering because it fit with my passions of being curious and understanding how things worked.  I was very naive and didn’t realise the ratio to males to females was going to be so different, but regardless of the challenges when you get to do something that you love every day you are willing to take on the challenges.

What makes engineering so fascinating for you?

I love finding problems and working towards a solution and engineering has an endless supply of problems with new equipment that can help us to understand more and more about the world.  I think my endless curiosity means I’m always looking for the next thing, and engineering is always looking for a new solution.

For anyone who doesn’t know if engineering would suit them; what characteristics in your opinion make a great engineer?

I don’t think there are set characteristics because engineering is so diverse a subject.  There are software engineers through to civil engineers and those jobs couldn’t be more different.  For me, a good engineer needs to like solving problems, be open to learning new things and passionate about making a difference.

GirlBoss focuses on getting girls into STEM fields such as engineering, why do you think it is integral to have girls in this field and keep them there?

The biggest asset to teamwork is diversity. When you are trying to solve a problem, having lots of answers coming from lots of different perspectives is important and this happens when you have diverse teams.  Diversity includes gender, socio-economic background and ethnicity and with females being a minority in engineering I think it’s important to ensure there are more of us to help build stronger teams.  Retention is also really important as many female engineers have so much talent and knowledge to contribute to the industry that is lost and will take a long time to replace if they leave.  It also disincentivises other females to follow in their footsteps if they can’t see role models like them in their industry.

To the crux of the matter- just why is it so hard to keep women in the engineering field, and what have been your trials and tribulations in getting them to stay there?

IPENZ did a great New Zealand study looking at these issues and they listed reasons which included women feeling isolated and not taken seriously when working in largely male dominated teams.  As the women thought about having families they found that their engineer job wasn’t flexible or available as a part time role and so chose to leave to work in a sector with more family friendly work hours.  There are many engineering companies trying to address these issues, but they still come up as the dominant ones in worldwide surveys.  I have recently been mentoring women who are thinking of leaving engineering for the reasons listed above, so the challenges are still there, the hope is that the corporate environment will change enough to cater to diverse employees.

What do you do that aims to mitigate the problem with gender bias and sexism in science?

I’m pretty well known for calling stuff out both in private and in public.  Conferences that only have male speakers, workplaces that have sexist posters on the walls, business leaders who make sexist remarks in public.  Unconscious bias means many people just don’t see how their words or behaviour can negatively affect others, so a simple conversation bringing it to their attention may be all that it needs.  If that doesn’t work, then sometimes I can be a bit more pushy and vocal, but it takes thick skin to do this as I’ve had a lot of negative reactions to raising awareness of gender bias.  

Next, how would you respond to this if you were the woman in the scenario? There is a woman, fresh out of university, being interviewed by two older men for a role in a local engineering business. She is asked questions such as: “Being a woman, how would you deal with a leading group of men?” “Are you planning on having children?” “What does your father/male relationship partner do?”

Firstly I’d state that asking those questions about children are illegal.  Secondly I’d state that my partner's employment is not relevant to my job.  The first question is an interesting one as it may be a real eye opener to the type of job and environment that I was applying for which may not have the culture that would be female friendly.  To me the question should revolve around the skillset of leading diverse teams and I’d want to know the company's diversity policy.  The thing about job interviews is that you get to ask questions back and you don’t have to answer them all.  My first instinct as a woman who was asked those questions would be to run a mile and apply for a different job as it probably wouldn’t be a good fit for me anyway.  Before I did that, I’d have probably done some research and found a female who worked there to see what the culture of the company was like.

And finally- something a little different! If someone told you exactly where you would be in twenty years, would you want to know, and why?

No way!  I love that life is an adventure and each decision you make every day writes a new chapter in a book that you don’t know the ending to.  I like not knowing what tomorrow brings and living each day as if it's my last.

A huge thank you to Dr Michelle Dickinson for speaking to us and sharing some of her knowledge.

Written by Maitreyi Aria Jain

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